By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 28, 2007
The Washington Nationals had spent all of this young season working on what grew into a historic streak of first-inning futility, setting a National League record by failing to score in the initial frame of their first 22 games.
So with Ronnie Belliard pulling into third base on Dmitri Young's first-inning single last night, and with the suddenly hot Austin Kearns taking a slow walk toward the plate, the crowd of 21,662 gathered at RFK Stadium rustled in anticipation. With the stage set, Kearns sent a pitch from Mets starter Oliver Perez over the left field fence for a three-run homer.
Kearns's blast sent fireworks into the air and kept Washington away from the major league record first-inning funks -- set by the 1948 Chicago White Sox, who needed 28 games to score in the first. But more important, the slugger set the tone for the rest of the game as Washington starter Matt Chico, with help from the bullpen, made the runs stand in a 4-3 victory over New York.
Chico, who suffered a bout of wildness against Florida during his last start, used strong control to keep a stacked Mets lineup honest for most of the night. Chico -- the same pitcher who walked seven hitters and hit the screen behind home plate with a wild pitch -- spotted his fastball over both sides of the plate and mixed speeds effectively enough to last into the sixth inning against a team that entered the game hitting a major league-best .352 against left-handers.
After allowing a run in the third inning, Chico worked his way out of a dangerous spot in the fourth, when he allowed three singles. But even with the bases loaded, Chico allowed New York to score just once, on Jose Valentin's fielder's choice. Chico ended the threat when he forced the next hitter, Perez, to fly out to center. Even then, Chico, who occasionally removed his cap to expose a freshly shaved head, could have escaped the jam without allowing a run. He barely missed on a 2-2 pitch at the knees against Valentin.
Nationals reliever Saul Rivera bailed Chico out of another difficult spot in the sixth inning. Chico walked leadoff hitter David Wright with his 92nd pitch of the night. Moises Alou followed with an infield single and Valentin singled to left to load the bases again. With one out and two runners on, Nationals Manager Manny Acta summoned Rivera to face Perez, whom Mets Manager Willie Randolph had left in the game. Perez, a .286 hitter coming into the night, struck out. Rivera ended the threat with by getting Reyes to ground out to second.
Washington scored in the sixth inning to make it 4-2 when Ryan Church doubled in Young. New York answered with a run in the eighth of reliever Jon Rauch, when Alou doubled in Wright. But Chad Cordero closed out the game with a perfect ninth.
Cordero showed another sign that he may be over his April slump, converting a second straight save opportunity without much drama. After getting Reyes to ground out and Paul Lo Duca to fly out deep to left, Cordero faced Carlos Beltran with two down.
Moments after Cordero let an 0-1 fastball fly, Beltran lifted his left hand to ask home plate umpire for time out. Home plate umpire Larry Vanover didn't react and the 90 mph fastball sailed over the plate for a called strike.
Randolph had to separate an angry Delgado who eventually grounded out to end the game.
Chico improved to 2-2 on the season and Washington capped off wins in back-to-back games.